On a scale of one to 10 on the excitement scale, early season, weeknight contests between the Ottawa Senators and Phoenix Coyotes would typically rank somewhere in the -12 range for most people. Tuesday night’s contest was notable for a couple reasons though.
First, the good. The Erik Karlsson show, it appears, is already in mid-season form. The Senators defenceman added two more points to get him to within one of the league lead at seven, including a rare instance of a must-see empty-net goal. Norris Trophy voters, Karlsson sees your ludicrous “offenseman” tag and raises you this:
"You wouldn't want Karlsson on for the last minute defending a lead" pic.twitter.com/gmwKUrxXC8
— Kevin Lee (@BringBackLee) October 19, 2016
Now, the bad. Had you looked at the number of tickets available for Tuesday night’s game or crowd shots after it started, you could have been forgiven for thinking the contest was taking place in Glendale and not at the Canadian Tire Centre. Announced attendance: 11,061.
There are a couple contributing factors here, not the least of which is the aforementioned excitement factor of Sens v. ‘Yotes. The Senators have long complained that early-season games simply aren’t big draws here and, despite some exciting young pieces on the Phoenix Coyotes roster, few are clamouring to see the Desert Dogs at this point.
There’s also a lot of other stuff going on at the moment, including the Toronto Blue Jays’ playoff run and more sports entertainment dollars slipping away to the CFL’s Ottawa Redblacks (a team that went to the Grey Cup last season and is competitive again this year). But even taking all that into account, it’s hard to ignore the size of the gap between Tuesday’s game and the previous attendance lows for Ottawa Senators games:
Re last night's 11k, #Sens lowest attended home games:
2009-10 – 16,063
2010-11 – 16,270
2011-12 – 17,771
2012-13 – 17,337
2013-14 – 15,535
— SensNation (@SensNation) October 19, 2016
It might also be easier to overlook Tuesday’s embarrassing gate had the Senators not failed to sell out their season opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs, which would have been a two-foot putt for the ticket sales crew in years past.
Yes, you can throw dozens of reasons out there to explain the Senators’ multi-season downward attendance trend – even the especially tired “the rink is in the middle of nowhere” – but there’s one that matters above all else, which, if remedied, would solve pretty much every other problem we’ve discussed so far: the team actually has to be good!
Seems so simple, doesn’t it? The fact of the matter is that the Ottawa Senators have won one playoff round since going to the Stanley Cup final in 2007, and the sense of malaise around this team in the city is palpable. While the Senators have sold the new coaching staff as reason to believe they’re thrive this season, they did the same with the last half-dozen or so bench boss hires. Who could blame fans here for taking a wait-and-see approach, especially when this season’s roster is little changed from the group that missed the playoffs (again) last season?
This isn’t just an Ottawa thing, either, though fans in rival markets are having a good chuckle about it today. Remember, Pittsburgh nearly lost the Penguins before turning into the on and off-ice powerhouse it is today, and it’s not like the Chicago Blackhawks were a big draw before they started winning Stanley Cups.
Another thing that’s important to keep in mind is that the Canadian Tire Centre is too big of a rink for this market to fill in a typical, non-Stanley Cup contending season. Each and every one of the lowest-attended games here (not including Tuesday) would be a sellout in Winnipeg, for example. But the city has shown that it can fill the rink to the brim every single night when the team is really good.
The Senators’ early games suggest they’re probably going to be a really up-tempo, fun (read: terrifying) group to watch this season, and Karlsson alone is worth the price of admission on most nights, but they’ve got some work to do if they’re going to a turn around a pretty inauspicious off-ice start to the season. It all starts with winning.
James Gordon is a former Ottawa Citizen NHL beat writer and sports editor and is currently publisher of HockeyMarkets.com. Follow him on at twitter.com/James_J_Gordon.